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The Internet Editorial

The Real Problem With Alexa 372

Alexa drives me nuts. It uses a broken methodology to measure the internet and is, for reasons unclear to anyone, regarded as somehow definitive simply because it allows you to compare two sites with a single simple number. Its sampling methodology is flawed and the numbers it produces are meaningless. And if you want to help me prove this, please install their toolbar. Of course since most of you are Slashdot readers, most of you won't and that only helps prove my point. Read on for what I mean by all of this, and why it matters.

As the defacto 'Guy in Charge' of a reasonably large web site, I am routinely asked questions by a variety of people that lead inevitably to Alexa. It might be a question from my Boss at SourceForge about traffic. Or it might be a sales guy asked by a possible advertiser why some other random website is bigger or smaller than Slashdot. Most often it's a random reporter doing background for a story that has nothing to do with Slashdot. Why I'm considered an expert is very confusing, but why they always regard Alexa rankings as meaningful is even more so.

Here's the problem: Alexa doesn't work because of who will install it, and perhaps more importantly, who won't. Let's start with a place I'm very familiar with: Slashdot readers. Until recently Alexa didn't work on Firefox... instead only IE users participated. On the internet as a whole that's fine: like 80% of users run IE. But on Slashdot only like a quarter of you do.

What about re-installing the plug-in after you update your browser? When Firefox 2.0 came out, almost a third of Slashdot readers upgraded within a few days. You upgrade Minor Firefox releases overnight. Even IE users of Slashdot update relatively fast, from 6 to 7 or even minor revisions. New versions often break old plug-ins. When you get that alert that a plug-in is out of date do you just forget about it? I know I do. And that's not even counting clean OS installs. But if I went to random non-technical friends and family installations, I frequently see versions of software so dated it makes me cringe.

And that's not even talking about the fact that Alexa's toolbar is pretty much spyware. How many Slashdot readers are giddy to install spyware? You either? Big surprise. Because of who we are, and what it is, our population will self select out of consideration.

Did you know Alexa excludes SSL? How many etrade users do you think there are? Now personally I'm glad that they aren't tracking my browsing at my credit card company, but it's just another factor reducing accuracy.

Equally perplexing is the accounting of iframes. Let's look at someone like double click's alexa rating. Now it's hard to say, but I don't think I've ever visited their website. Have you? But according to Alexa, they have nearly a 1% share of the internet. I'd tend not to believe it... but they have iframes on zillions of web pages and counting those sure would account for this huge ranking. What about all those badges for the popular social networking websites? What influence are those iframes having on Alexa rankings? Alexa's FAQ says they don't count, but I'm skeptical.

In Fact, Alexa KNOWS that it is a flawed metric for measuring. Have you ever tried actually looking up alexa on alexa? Unsurprisingly, it is unavailable. Why? Visitors to Alexa.com would be the most likely of any user population on-line to have installed their plug-in. I don't know what their 'Rank' would be, but I bet it clearly would be an apples to oranges comparison against ANY other site on-line.

Of course who do you think actually will go out of their way to install something like this? I have a good guess... if you are obsessed with acronyms like SEO or terms like PageRank you are very likely to care very much about these things. I spend a real percentage of my week dealing with people flooding my systems with garbage content designed to screw with these ratings. And you know they all have the toolbar installed so their zillions of worthless spam websites are being counted.

This problem has parallels elsewhere of course: The Nielsen ratings struggle to account for PVRs. Since you got a TiVo, when was the last time you watched "Live" TV? This is part of why Science Fiction shows struggle on TV... scifi fans are early adopters. So we stopped getting counted and our favorite genres are butchered by networks and lost to the void. PVR users tend to be wealthy (those boxes are expensive) and educated. Now I'm not saying that the dumbing down of TV is exclusively the fault of Tivo, but it sure didn't help that we weren't being counted as excellent "Smart" TV shows get canceled while we keep getting more seasons of Survivor. Who we are and how we live causes us to not be counted, and this has unintended consequences.

So what do we do? I wish I had a good answer to this. My first suggestion would be that if anyone mentions Alexa to you that you freak out and go on a 5-minute rant about how Alexa is stupid and anyone who is using it to seriously make a business decision should be fired. It doesn't actually help, but i estimate that every time I do this, I burn the same number of calories as I might on an elliptical trainer. I assure you the beer gut ain't getting smaller on its own.

Alternatively you could just install the toolbar on every machine you can find and skew the numbers ridiculously towards people that are likely unrepresented. Of course, the conspiracy theorists amongst you will just bitch that I'm trying to fudge Slashdot's own rankings in a system I'm claiming to hate. But that only helps proves my point... the conspiracy theorist is a demographic strongly represented on Slashdot that is unlikely to trust this software. We all ignore a broken status quo "Gold" standard that would fail a 100 level college science class on the grounds of flawed methodology. And this only leads to us not being counted.

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The Real Problem With Alexa

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  • by suv4x4 ( 956391 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:08PM (#19957283)
    Will have to reread this, but it doesnt come off as news but a rant. And no I wont install the toolbar.

    "Rant" ?

    CmdrTaco is being rebel, anti-establishment, rage against the machine, fuck the system! This is what he's done here, and he deserves *respect* old man.

    Back in the days, when we were pissed about religion, wars and social injustice, we dressed like goths and sang bad rock and roll and emo music.

    But today, thanks to the world wide web, we take the next level, and all this unrelenting energy in today's youth comes in the form of a rant against a toolbar that rates sites. And I say, bravo.
  • by everphilski ( 877346 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:10PM (#19957311) Journal
    ...because digg.com is beating slashdot.org :)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:10PM (#19957321)
    Don't worry, you'll be able to re-read it tomorrow when Zonk makes a dupe post.
  • by customizedmischief ( 692916 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:14PM (#19957383)
    Come on folks, it's time to be counted!

    Now where can I download the Alexa plugin for lynx?
  • by UbelievablyLame ( 962303 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:18PM (#19957439)
    "Of course since most of you are Slashdot readers..."

    hm... given the context I would say 'most' is an understatement
  • by eln ( 21727 ) * on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:22PM (#19957525)
    He's hoping to get crossposted on digg.
  • by sinner6 ( 884407 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:27PM (#19957613)
    Yes the reason digg has a higher page rank on alexia is because the average digg user is almost universally less technically savy then the average slashdot user. No I am not being sarcastic, they are dumber.

    A slashdot debate on bush and the war, for example, will use complete word and sentances and sometimes include facts. A crazy rant it might be but a crazy READABLE rant.
    The same debate on digg...
    bush = leet haxor
  • by everphilski ( 877346 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:28PM (#19957633) Journal
    If you hate it that much, why are you hanging out here?

    I'm this close to leaving. I keep hoping things will make a turn for the better. But it sure doesn't look like it will.
  • by Random BedHead Ed ( 602081 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:31PM (#19957697) Homepage Journal

    You're telling me - rants drive me absolutely nuts, especially on this site. They don't make good reading, they pointlessly waste your time, and they use up valuable screen real estate that could be occupied by other, more interesting stories. The methodology behind rants us usually utterly broken but, for reasons unclear to anyone, are regarded as 'postable material' on all too many sites. I mean, let's not draw the line at Slashdot. Rants show up on:

    • Slashdot
    • Digg
    • Kuro5hin
    • Wired
    • People's stupid blogs
    • ... and like a zillion other sites I have to put up with.

    That we obviously need to abandon rants is clear, because they're almost always pointless, but there are so many of them these days that it gets to the point where the only metric you're using to compare sites is the quality of its rants. This is entirely flawed and meaningless, and leaves me wanting a stiff drink. Still, don't get me started on their frequency on /. You're all Slashdot readers, most of you just go ahead and prove my point anyway.

    So say you go to some random site and end up reading a rant. What have you learned. After you close your browser, are you any more complete as a person? Have you grown intellectually. Let me think: no ... no. I'm not some some expert on rants and why I'm writing about them is very confusing, but I think I have as much to say about the dumb things as anyone. And if that bothers people, at least I got the point across.

    Here's the problem: rants don't work. If you RTFA, and start with a place I'm very familiar with (namely Slashdot) like a quarter of you write rants anyway. And that's not even talking about the fact that any rant, and not all posts are rants, is going to take up people's time and not get modded very well anyway. How many Slashdot readers would mod a rant up? You either? Big surprise. Because of who we are, and what it is, our population will self select out of consideration.

    Did you know rants can get posted by ANYONE? How about Anonymous Cowards? Now personally I'm glad of that, free speech and all. But anyway, those are my (heavily edited) thoughts on this.

  • by heinousjay ( 683506 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:39PM (#19957839) Journal
    There's no better path to profit than courting an audience of people who's explicit goal is to destroy the monetary value of software.
  • by sherpajohn ( 113531 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:41PM (#19957849) Homepage
    My irony meter just broke, and you owe me a new one.
  • by gru3hunt3r ( 782984 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:43PM (#19957885) Journal
    Let me save you some breath, I deal with non-technical small online business owners all day, every day, and I have for the last 7 years - they are obviously concerned with Alexa rankings.

    I *HAVE* been telling them that the stats are bullshit, not only for the reasons listed above but a few others - but eventually I gave up and developed a better strategy:

    Don't bother explaining highly technical concepts to a monkey, it frustrates you and annoys the monkey.

    If your pointy haired boss wants your Alexa ranking to improve I would suggest you:
    1) Call a meeting, invite as many department heads as you can.
    2) Make the problem your own, and phrase it as *MASSIVE*, *DIRE*, *EXTREME* (e.g. if we don't fix this, we could all be out of a job soon)
    3) Suggest IMMEDIATE ACTION be taken, suggest hiring an offshore team of workers (China $0.37/hr) to install the Alexa toolbar and surf around your site.
    4) Recommend that the company consider an immediate payout a Ukranian hacker with mob ties named "Ivan" who will pwn machines and install alexa and then randomly pop your site on his botnet for a reasonable fee.
    5) Finally tell them that bribes to key employees in Alexa may be necessary - tell them you may have a contact and tell them to be ready to authorize six digit sums of money in a 24 hour period if necessary. [this can be useful for other reasons]

    Trust me - as soon as the first mention of money (and specifically who's budget it will come out of) is made the general attitude toward how important Alexa is will change. They'll backpedal, claim you're being overly-proactive. They'll produce some rant they found on a website called dot-slash saying how Alexa rankings aren't important.

    Tell them it's all propaganda, proceed to ignore whatever they say -- pronounce your undying love for Alexa - and it's relevance to the web.
    Then proceed to tell them that (in your professional opinion) your company won't be able to recruit good people because of your poor Alexa ranking. Tell them that search engines will stop spidering your site, and eventually your traffic will drop to zero. Without a good alexa ranking your email will get caught in more spam filters and you'll appear on blacklists and phishing filters more frequently. That means the SSL locks won't show up on browsers anymore. This will cause packet loss on your routers to increase. If it's not fixed immediately it's possible eventually your domain won't even work if somebody enters it directly into their browser. ALEXA IS THE MASTER OF THE INTERNET THEY ARE ALL KNOWING WE MUST SERVE THEM WITHOUT QUESTION.

    ps> I *seriously* did have one customer who hired an offshore Indian firm to boost they're rankings (no bullshit) - feel free to mention that your competitors are already doing this, and the clock is ticking. WE NEED A DECISION NOW.

    The next topic: PAGE RANK (umm.. wash, rinse, repeat)

  • by gru3hunt3r ( 782984 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @12:56PM (#19958039) Journal
    Oh.. almost forgot to mention -- to respond to Page Rank

    First tell them the SEO consultant they hired is an idiot (did he graduate from DeVry and have his CNA? - I don't think so) and he is most likely trying to defraud the company and that they should stop payment on his check.

    Changing your page rank # is easy there are lots of articles on the web how to do it, but basically you can simply do it with Meta tags ex: .. if you want a page rank of 12 then just change the 7 to a 12 - it's easy.

    If they don't believe you they can look it up on their Inter-web. There are lots of websites which explain that Google's spider crawls meta-tags to index the site and determine page rank.
    (At this point their head will hurt from all the technical mumbo jumbo)

    In 60 days when it doesn't work, tell them that it's because your website is too slow and Google probably can't crawl it fast enough, use that to justify a OC48 to your desktop so you can make faster and more frequent site updates. Now yur l337 bcuz u can pwned newb's in PvP huh?

    When the OC48 doesn't work, suggest the problem could be that Google found out you're spending too much time with Alexa (a Google competitor) and traffic isn't being seen by Google's routers and so Google is penalizing you.

    At that point I suggest using similar tactics to Alexa.

    By the time you get a couple of those six digit payouts to bribe key employees in Alexa/Google, then you won't need to work there anymore. Leave and start your own company.

    Have FuN!
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 23, 2007 @01:57PM (#19958893)

    bush = leet haxor
    RON PAUL FTW!!11!

  • Alexa (Score:3, Funny)

    by evildogeye ( 106313 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @03:41PM (#19960365) Homepage
    If you really want good Alexa ratings, just put a link to the toolbar at the top of slashdot.org. Soon you'll probably be in the top 20.
  • Re:Spyware? (Score:3, Funny)

    by Darby ( 84953 ) on Monday July 23, 2007 @06:40PM (#19962743)

    Parent's link is to a photo of an enlarged and strangely external male anus, and while not the classic goatse, is certainly a related image.

    You type quite well for a person who just gouged their own eyes out with a fork.

  • by plover ( 150551 ) * on Tuesday July 24, 2007 @12:29AM (#19965625) Homepage Journal
    No problem. You can use my goldy meter or my bronzy meter. They're just like your irony meter, only they're made of gold and bronze.

"The following is not for the weak of heart or Fundamentalists." -- Dave Barry